The Architect for Humanity
Aishwarya Joshi pioneers Dubai’s first social enterprise:
connecting corporate resources for social good.
Sujata Devadas, January 26, 2016
Many accolades attest to her voice, her spirit of action and the networks she built for a brighter future for all: Health Authority of Abu Dhabi’s Cancer Wave Campaign in 2012, ACUMEN in Dubai for 2013, Dubai Toastmasters Middle East Conference 2015, Dubai HEROES 2015, Splash Heart of Gold 2015, Non-Resident Indian Game changer in Community among them.
If Only Someone Had Asked
Aishwarya entered Dubai as a design architect for DSA Architects International in 2006. Her work took her to Palm Jumeirah construction site for 3 years. Often, she saw immigrant workers sleeping on cardboards under the shade of a tree. Saddened by their daily plight, Aishwarya, then in her late 20s, thought of designing projects, not for construction, but for benefitting them.
Aishwarya was orphaned at 15. She continued life and her education in Mumbai, helped along by neighbors, family and friends, completing graduation in Architecture. Lessons from her mother, Swapna, were her guiding light. “Without realizing it, my Mom prepared me for making a lone journey. Her advice came in very handy on whom to trust.”As a college student in Mumbai, she volunteered with non-government organizations(NGOs) to distribute relief to flood victims and slum dwellers.
Working in Dubai, it struck her that although companies sponsored charitable events, they had other resources for accomplishing the same good cause IF ONLY someone would ask. Volunteering helped her understand the demand. The supplies existed in the corporate sector. An MoU with corporates could bring in restorative social change.
“I had the dots. I made it my priority to connect them in the best manner.” says Aishwarya.
She launched her first Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative in 2010, to help immigrant workers handle stress, anger and negative emotions, tweaking a manual from International Association for Human Values (IAHV) and aligning it with living conditions of blue-collar workers in UAE.
She facilitated a 3-day workshop for them, guiding them out of the ‘intractable’ situation of economic recession hitting the construction sector. DULSCO took her up on the offer to conduct these workshops. They accepted and organized the first one- a test run - in Fujairah. Its success was marked with tears as participants bid goodbye to Aishwarya at the end of her workshop. Subsequently, 570 DULSCO employees attended her workshops in Ras Al Khaimah, Al Quoz, Sonapur and Fujairah who called her back.
Advice on savings, handling debt, soft skills and behavioral skills became core elements of her workshop. Aishwarya continued providing this initiative with other companies like Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority, Bahwan Electrical Company, GEM’s Millennium School, Sumeru Industries FZE, etc. Now, 5 years down the line, these labor camp workshops have been delegated to upcoming change-makers while Aishwarya remains the main co-ordinator.
“Keep your distance”
Her drive to continue her workshops grew when a young man thanked her for bringing back his smile. “How difficult is it to smile?” asks Aishwarya. Her voice rings out as she says, “CSR is not a new concept but many fail to realize that it can move mountains. If used correctly and strategically, vast benefits can accrue with the same amount of resources and far less wastage.”
As word spread about her workshops, questions emerged “why are you touching dirty linen?” Her answer: “Because I care. I see them every day. You don’t. Their stories happen in front of me. This is my corporate social responsibility. These workers are not aggressive. They do not wish to create issues. They are just as normal as you and me.”
Satisfied with her accomplishments till then, she chose to help prisoners.
In 2011, she volunteered to help IAHV strategically organize the prison S.M.A.R.T program. S.M.A.R.T stands for ‘stress management and rehabilitation training’. Held by Dubai Police in women’s prison, juvenile prison and central prison, it made a life-transforming difference in prisoners for coping with erratic emotions and turbulent situations.
Meanwhile, she also attended free CSR lectures offered at the Dubai Chambers and took a short sabbatical from work that culminated in getting her certification as a CSR practitioner in 2012.
A pioneering social enterprise in Dubai, ’The Lighthouse Cohort’ is a curated CSR marketplace that started operations in 2014. Aishwarya is its founder. She steered her career away from designing buildings to working as a strategic 'Corporate Social Responsibility’ consultant, a motivational speaker and an agent for change. “I help companies of all sizes achieve their CSR missions, visions or initiatives. My objective is to achieve their CSR targets by connecting corporate resources for social good; creating and improving the quality of life for all recipients”.
The Lighthouse Cohort operates with hand-picked local and international NGOs, plus a few successful corporate representatives as advisory board. Under its banner, NGOs such as SmartLife Foundation, IAHV and a number of others, lead projects aligned to the sustainable development goals of the United Nations. If the project serves the company’s purpose, yielding a return on investment, then it serves as an inspiration for the company to pursue this as a long term commitment to social good.
By designing projects with customized CSR solutions, Aishwarya is able to make it available to companies of varying sizes. The team of consultants, trainers and volunteers might change according to project requirement. The core team consists of three professionals.
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Opting for renewable energy
Issues related to children and the environment has always been close to her heart. “I cooked my first solar meal when I was in 6th grade” says Aishwarya. Using curated CSR, she has recently realized her wish to make use of solar power in practical ways. “One of our recent CSR solutions was a solar cooking project with Beacon Energy Solutions company in Dubai schools. The inspiration for this came from the new world record set by 3639 Indian students, organized by the non-profit organization, Keshav Srushti in Mumbai.
Aishwarya is actively supporting the efforts of Jnana Prabodhini Rural Residential School located in Harali, a remote village in India. Besides being a progressive educational institution, more than 90% of their operations run on solar energy. The efforts are on to gear support towards phase 2 of a project in collaboration with IAHV, India for Char Jhaukti – a village that is recovering from conflict near Indo-Bangladesh border. The Lighthouse Cohort will help in bringing light and energy to 45 households through renewable energy solutions.
My master plan
Aishwarya concedes that although a feel good event is great, the need of the hour is to move from mundane charity events. “We need to explore long lasting projects where the investment of time, effort and resources has a lasting impact” she urges. “The effort should bring a change in yourself and the immediate environment around you. I am always working on a master plan to help humanity. All small efforts are the details in it. That is how it becomes a cumulative effort. Progress is faster.”
“If you are following a dream, take full responsibility for it.” she says. Her central strategic purpose in life is to create possibilities and opportunities not just for the underprivileged, but for everyone. “All of us deserve a life from which we do not need a vacation. I see myself as a lighthouse for a brief period of time in the lives of others, guiding them in the right direction.” says Aishwarya.
As a CSR practitioner in the UAE, Aishwarya is best known as ‘the architect for humanity’.